How My AP Literature Teacher Crushed My Post It Note Dreams (And Taught Me How to Annotate)

What makes a good reader?

I’ve spent the last two years of teaching juniors trying to answer this very question and each year I arrive at some same things and some different.  This year I taught a class of freshman for the first time.  While I learned many things while teaching freshmen, the course itself demanded that both student and teacher have a clear understanding of what exactly is a good reader.  In fact, one could argue that freshman year objectives are centered around habits of a good reader.  So how do teachers answer that question?

If taking 9th grade “Coming of Age” Module, it means reflective interaction with the text.  Don’t be fooled; this is just a fancy way of saying good annotations.  I was somewhat suprised that most freshmen do not know how to annotate.  Only somewhat surprised because I did not know how to annotate well until college.  But what exactly are good annotations?  And do annotations make strong readers? The short answer is yes and no.

Stick noteGrowing up, I was never allowed to mark in my books.  Books were assigned and the classroom copy recieved was kept in near pristine condition despite years of use.  My teachers threatened us with hefty fines if a book dare have a stray pencil mark.  This was problematic; I am a visual learner who needs a tactile experience to remember things.  I need to write in books.  I need to ask my questions in the moments I read them.  (And believe me, sticky notes and the book are not the same thing. ) My senior year in high school, my mother decided she was through buying massive amounts of sticky notes.  She bought my books for the AP Literature and AP Language classes.  The struggle then was not “could I write in a book and get away with it” but “what do I write in the book now that I own it?”  My current color coded system seemed out of place.  The pink sticky notes that indicated a vocabulary word or the blue sticky notes that indicated a good quote lacked the immediate silent scream they once had when they hung over the page edge. “This page, right here, this page” became very irrelevant when I could write in the book.  But what would I write?

I started the AP course and the first thing the teacher told me was that I did not know how to annotate, that it didn’t matter if I used sticky notes or if I wrote them in myself: it was not annotating.  (I’ll spare you the grief-striken two days I spent moping over sticky notes.)  I’ll never forget that moment, the teacher looking at my highlighted, color coded inked notes while we read Hamlet, Act I, Scene 5.  Lady Macbeth musing over a letter from Macbeth, newly Thane of Cawdor:

Yet do I fear thy nature;
It is too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way.”  (Shakespeare I.V)

“That’s not annotating.  Where are your questions for Lady Macbeth? Your own reactions? Why is that word important?  How do know that quote means more than a series of phrases?”

When I teach good annotations, I start with this story.  I think my students feel the same I did all those years ago; they know to define words that are new to them.  They know how to identify strong passages.  But like me, they don’t know why they are important or how to use annotations to breathe into a text, to let the story completely overtake your thoughts (or corrupt your thoughts in the case of Macbeth). They don’t know how to interact with both story and their own curiosity.  I knew enough to highlight Lady Macbeth’s famous lines, but I didn’t know to engage them.  I had to learn, to be pushed into what I’m calling annotation justification.  I had to ask myself why that word, that phrase, that moment was important to both me the reader and me the audience.  One digests information; the other reacts.  I had to learn how to change my annotations from “this is Lady Macbeth commenting on Macbeth’s inability to act on his ambitions” to “fascinating that Shakespeare makes a woman the villian, and that she is labeled such because she chooses to aggressively pursue power through her husband.”

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Annotating for intent, Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

 

It didn’t happen overnight.  It did happen though.  My teacher spent the first ten minutes of every class sharing her annotations, quite literally, under a document camera.  She justified each notation.  And when she couldn’t, she asked questions about why that seemed important; she predicted why it might become crucial to a character.  She did this every day of the six months I spent in her class senior year.  Did I still define words for clarity? Yes.  But I hunted down better words, words that pushed on the text (“the milk of

human kindess” instantly feminizes Macbeth).  And it changed the way I read.

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Annotating The Alchemist by Paul Coelho

 

I provided the same courtesy to the freshman.  Under a document camera (even old technology can be the best for a particular purpose), I justified every annotation of mine for Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and for Paul Coelho’s The Alchemist.  And I let them ask questions, interrogate my selections or sometimes dialogue about the questions we shared as a class.  Will it make them better readers? Maybe. Do I worry they will create systems of organizations so complex it will overwhelm more than help? A bit.  But at the end of the day if the only lesson learned is that becoming a good reader is hard work, I’ll take it.  If at the end of the day, they find value in their own questioning and engage words that push through meaning, then I know I’ve created readers who will keep reading.

And I’m wondering what that might look like when I see them again as juniors.

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“Nolite te Bastardes Carborundorum”

I love it when the seniors leave little gems in their OneNotes for me to find.  Especially when in the midst of The Handmaid’s Tale by Atwood.

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My new crush is a Team Effort

I make no secret that I am a technology fan: OneNote has been an integral part of my classroom for four years. It is the best tool I have to grade, share material, and demonstrate good writing.  And, while I might have the occasional student who loathes most technology (except the cellphone), most of my students love the ease of the application.  I too love OneNote.   And then I met Microsoft Teams.

Last year at ISTE (the International Society of Technology) 2017 Conference, Microsoft previewed their program Teams.  It’s a software platform that combines OneNote, Planner, Cloud, and the Microsoft Office Suite.  I knew I would love Teams; I had already started learning Microsoft Planner.  As a natural list maker, Planner easily integrated into my work day.  However, the software is a bit limited; it’s still just an agenda built for individual or team use.  Teams, however, is built for whole classroom integration.  The Planner add-in allows anyone enrolled to assign tasks.   With that integration,  I knew instantly that Teams is how the school newspaper will get done this year.

I’ve been on the hunt for something to match the hurried, somewhat organized, fast paced, year round (ish), task based newspaper classroom.  We tried just using OneDrive; file management felt tedious.  We tried OneNote last year; it felt clumsy and just not innate to the many tasks editors had to navigate.  (InDesign is just not friendly with OneNote, even as a storage locker.)  Teams looked just right. Capture76

AgendaI implement the software last week.  I’ve already had six students ask me how they could use it for other classes and clubs.  Some just want the Planner add-in; my assistant editor is a list fanatic and is already scheming how to use Planner.  I can’t blame her.  It’s also my favorite function.  Pl2For newspaper, assigning articles and jobs outside writing is suddenly easy, organized, and visually pleasing.  Within each task, you can start conversations; since I share newspaper with another teacher, this is often a great way to check in when not in the classroom. For example, while the layout editor creates the new master document for the new paper, I can communicate with her via checklist or the comment function about that task.  In turn, she can check them off the list.  Screenshot (2)The tabs for each task help students prioritize; I’ve labeled ours according to issue and time.

Teams also has an instant chat function.  The girls can communicate with each other while in the field.  Even more so, because the class doesn’t meet December through February, it gives the students a space to continue building community and sharing ideas.  I’m also realizing what a great tool this will be for our spring editor.  The paper shifts leadership with a new editor in spring, and I have high hopes Teams will allow for a more seamless transition.  It will definitely allow for better record keeping.  Capture4.PNGOne of our headaches from last year was locating files from previous issues, other editors, last year…it just seemed that every editor preferred a different way to name and store files.  Teams solves that right away; it has a file function built into the platform.  The students can create folders and upload files right in the application. Of our current files, I created one; the editors have taken over, something I’ve loved to see for some time.

I will admit right now that the students learn faster than I do.  Quite frankly, they need to: this is their publication.  I’m thrilled that Teams has been the vehicle pushing them into ownership.

I’m not sure this is class ready;  it doesn’t quite match my English classroom structure.  I’ve started to think about how the chat function could be instructive rather than the distracting thing I’m sure it will become.  I’m also keenly aware that many students can repel away from technology overload.  If I ask them to use their OneNote, upkeep their planner, and then upload files, it feels a little like overkill. I’m not sure the agenda won’t just feel like a tedious task; many students are assigned one thing unlike the newspaper.  OneNote also allows for individual spaces; Teams is very much a collaborative environment.  So while I’m currently enjoying my new crush, OneNote and I are still in love.  At least, when it comes to my English classroom.

In the meantime, I’m thrilled to see newspaper crushing on Teams as much as I am.

 

 

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What to Really Do for the First Day Of School: a List for the Practical Teacher

IMG_20161213_155131 - CopyEvery teacher I know is playing their first day out- whether with the experience of last year fresh in mind or the optimism of the very first year ahead.   I quite enjoy the anticipation; it forces me to reflect on last year’s good intentions, last year’s “what worked and what did not work” so to speak.  I’m also a goal-orientated educator; articulating objectives or reflecting on past practices helps set the tone for the year ahead.  And, since I have a captive audience, I’m adding my list to the millions of other posted lists about the first days of school.  Only this list is the real list; the list of things you most need to do.  After twelve years of teaching, this is the list that works for me.  

  1. Eat breakfast. Even a small one.  This may sound like practical advice more than teaching advice.  Eat breakfast.  I spent many a school year running out the door without something in my stomach.  I spent many a school year wondering why my mornings just didn’t run as smoothly as my afternoons.  The one thing I did last year that change everything: breakfast.  Even if it was on the go, I had something prepared in my stomach every day.  Soon, I was up early so I could eat breakfast which means I was in my room a little bit earlier and I was in a great mood to attack the day.  It’s the same for students as it is for teachers- a little breakfast goes a long way.  Before I knew it, I was a morning person.  This year, I was gifted a kerig machine for my classroom and I’m tempted.  Very skeptical, but tempted; after I do number 3, I may add it to my classroom tech arsenal.
  2. Have templates, will use.   My teacher mentor from years ago gave me one of the best gifts: a collection of templates.  Have a student who has been absent and needs a reminder to check in? I have a template for that email.  Need to contact a parent about a student update? I have a template for that email. Need to update class on snow day make up work? I even have a template for that email.  Figure out what you need for the year and create those before the first day.  Leave room to make them personal (I do not make templates for feedback or comments in a gradebook) but efficient. I have a template for the first email to all parents that I modify depending on the year.  I use my absent student one all the time. Keep these electronically; mine live in my OneNote Teacher notebook in word doc form.
  3. Clean your room.  I sound like my mother who insisted that you really couldn’t do anything in a messy environment.  She’s right; last year I opted to clean my room before leaving for the summer.  I really spent time thinking about how the space was used (turns out I don’t need an extra bookcase for supplies) and how I want it to be used (I moved the lending library near the door- students grab and go with ease).  I eliminated the need for a desk two years ago; it just seemed to be a collection of things I didn’t want anyway.  Now heading back, I’ve got some leftover supplies from my summer class that need a home.  I’m excited to clean the department supply cart (a solution we came up with after declaring that no one wanted to keep the same supplies in every room), and I’m using washi tape to re-organize my dry erase boards.  I’m also re-examining how to better situate technology in my very old classroom; the document camera needs a new space and I’m hoping to convince technology to re-wire my projector.  And I clean.  With Clorox. Everywhere.
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    Part of the Core: Teachers who Started the Same Year As Me

    Establish your core.  I’m not talking about exercise, at least not physical exercise.  I mean your support group, your colleague core.  If you are new to your school, reach out to the person you will most work with and establish some mutual grounds.  Email your librarian, your IT department, and your department head.  Ask questions, schedule a time to meet before the school year gets started.  I reach out to the librarians with my course syllabus; the IT department and I meet to discuss the new technology I’m implementing.  I usually lunch with a few teachers in my discipline and invite new ones.  It’s important to feel connected to a sense of community, whether that be big or small.  Teaching very much takes a village and realizing how each of us connect is a big part of student success.  Any teacher who feels like an island is never well placed for a good year; if you aren’t a fan of big groups in the lunchroom, invite others for a coffee break.  While it takes time to develop a professional learning community, it takes one coffee break to feel connected. And that’s a start, for both you and your students.

  5. Harpers_Ferry_Fall_Foliage_by_Terry_Tabb_(770px).jpgPlan your next break.  I know, school hasn’t even started and I’m suggesting planning your next break!  I learned this years ago, when teacher burnout really threatened to end my career.  Before school starts, I plan the first vacation break in the new school year.  It can be as big as a week long diving trip (oh March, you can’t come soon enough) or a small weekend get away.  Have one in mind; better yet have one planned.  You will not have time to do this during the first months of school.  It will motivate you, re-invigorate you, and absolutely sustain you.  My first trip involves Harper’s Ferry, a convenient hour away.  I have a cute bed and breakfast planned right in the middle of October when the leaves are at their best. I may bring grading along, but I will at least be resting as the first two months of school are marked down on the books.
  6. Get a haircut. Maybe a manicure.  Okay, this one is maybe not a hard fast rule, but a spirited one.  Make yourself physically ready to greet the first day.  Find a first day outfit, get a first day haircut, or treat yourself to a manicure.  When you feel your best, you will be at your best. Maybe rock that brand new purse handbag patagonia messenger.  Do something that signifies a new start.  After all, that’s exactly what a first day is, no matter how many years of teaching: a new start. This year I may do all three.
  7.  Start mapping your collaborations or projects now.  Most teachers spend a lot of their summer re-inventing their curriculum, excited about how to make it new.  I will be honest: I spend most my summer trying not to think about my curriculum.  It rarely works in entirety; by this time I have an idea about new things I’m willing to do or new projects I’d like to try.  My first project is relatively easy to start: I’m re-doing the vintage game Guess Who? for the literary classroom.  (More on that soon.)  I’m also re-thinking the science fiction elective and hoping for a buy in from the science department.  Newspaper will utilize Microsoft’s Teams this year and this week I’ve started to establish their group site.  (Remember that utilizing a new technology can sometimes be a project itself.)  I’m also re-doing a play I wrote because a student  asked to produce it this year and wondering how to package the script.  All of this really gets my brain thinking and excited for the first day!
  8. IMG_20170705_130536 - Copy.jpgBring your kitten to work.  I’m just kidding.  Probably not an advisable thing, even if your kitten is just as cute as mine.  Instead, bring a happy photo for your classroom.  Just one or two; your students don’t need your life story in pictures.  Have one photo that makes you smile on those days you may need one.  I rotate mine out- sometimes it is my mom, sometimes its a kitty picture, and sometimes it’s just pictures of cupcakes.  (I’m not kidding.)
  9. Invest in a good planner and then use it.  I’m a moleskine devotee; my planner is a red 5 by 7 moleskine notebook.  I fill it in well before the first day, even taking an hour to double check my school email for events I might have missed.  I also utilize Microsoft Outlook on my laptop as well as Google cal for my phone.  Even so, the red moleskin is my dedicated school planner.  And I love the size- I can fit it into a bag with ease, the color is quick to spot, and the binding doesn’t catch on fabric.  I take notes right next to the calendar grid which is essential in faculty staff meetings.  Trust me, if you are navigating both a calendar and a notebook during a quick meeting, you will miss things.  I highly suggest a planner that leaves you room for both.  I have my planner with me through everything but lunch.
  10. Leave room to have room.  There is such a thing as the overplanned, overscheduled teacher who has a spot for everything.  That is just not me, and I find that often times it leaves little room for collaboration or those wonderful spontaneous moments when a project just clicks with the class.  Prepare, but don’t over prepare so much that you leave no room for the grinds to grease.  Let your students help guide your curriculum; leave room for them to explore.  I’m teaching Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood and intentionally leaving some room in the course schedule for discussion.  And in the event there is no discussion, it will be okay. I’m going to let them guide me that week.

Now I’m feeling like I need cupcakes, a kitten, and my course schedule completed.  Happy first day to all my teacher friends, and be sure to add to my list.  What did I miss?

 

 

 

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Notes from ISTE 2017 (or why an English Teacher Should go to a Tech Conference)

​​ISTE, or the International Society for Technology in Education is held every year nationally and this year was hosted in San Antonio, Texas. It is part conference, part massive share session, part exposition, and all teacher-student focused.  And while this is my second year in attending, every humanities teacher should attend at least one ISTE.  I was thinking about the “why” behind that statement very much during this year’s conference; how exactly does English (or humanities for that matter) fit into a growing STEM curriculum?

I’ve got five reasons in no particular order.

1. Sometimes a new idea is best found outside your comfort zone.  ​This was a good part of keynote speaker Jad Abumrad, co-creator of Radio Lab.  (And yes, I was completely fangirl about his speech!) He spoke of the need for teachers to re-think, re-know, and re-create.  And the more I think about it, some of my last year successes came from last year’s ISTE.  Some of this year’s new ideas came from this year’s ISTE.  Especially from….

2. ​The Playground is more than swings in the 21st Century.  ​Our students are living in a world where the playground is virtual or at least a mix of both the virtual and the real.  ISTE acknowledges that the best learning is understanding how they work together; the best teaching involves lessons that give students both theory and application.  And instead of listening to some amazing educators, you can go to the ISTE Playground and interact with educators, students, and even “play” with some of the new technology and curriculum developed in different schools.  My favorite “playground” this year is a three way tie. Technically, one is in the exhibition hall, which I’ll get to in number 3.  The other two share a space: Microbit and Code Academy.  Microbit is a new toy​ obsession​ microprocessor from BBC that introduces both a way to code from your phone (via their app) and coding in general across multiple platforms.  It works with Python, Java, ​Scratch and others.  And if you are new to code and want to learn, Code Academy was right next door to demonstrate their free coding classes.  I’m on my fourth one.  I’m addicted.  Grab me and I’ll tell you all about how I re-ignited my love of html (oh my angst high school blog…how I miss you and your html) and started learning CSS.  I’ve started Java, and Python is on the docket.  (And if you like learning languages or graphing sentences #nerdhere, then you will love this.)

3. The Swag to Meet all Swags: The Exhibition hall at ISTE is a claustrophic nightmare, but a great way to really get your hands on something.  Literally- exhibitionists (I couldn’t stop myself…)bring their wares/technology/software/etc to the massive room and set up shop.  This year, I studied the map before entering so I knew what vendors or peeps I wanted to meet.  It’s also a great way to get some amazing swag: I came home with a free microbit from BBC, four cool tshirts, entry access to a couple new software programs, and a hot wheels car.  Which brings me to Microsoft, my third favorite “playground.”  This year, #hackMicrosoft used their exhibition space to create a hotwheels STEM playground.  Using the retro toy ( I was totally a hotwheels girl- my parents found it a bit unnerving), they set up a station where a hotwheels car, a paperclip, a micro processor, Microsoft excel, and a race track helped you understand and measure the velocity, speed, and friction of an object in motion.  I have pictures. I am happy to share.  It was amazing.  They even had a station set up where you wrote about your experience (more on this in #5).  If you could tear yourself away from the cars (it took me 45minutes), around the corner was the nextgen of OneNote and the premiere of Microsoft teams. I’m using both in my classroom next year.

4. Who run the world? Educators​.  Last year was a bit of hit or miss for me when it came to the sessions.  This year? I couldn’t find enough time or clone myself to attend all the ones I wanted.  Every one I went to was a great way to dialogue with other educators, a way to learn how to look at curriculum a bit differently, or just a really amazing idea I’d like to adopt.  I even met one of the authors of a book I purchased in the ISTE bookstore and had an incredible conversation about the changing nature of English education and the importance of preservation.  I met librarians, English teachers, theater directors, ESL teachers, and even a few high school students who presented their digital partnership with a school in Africa. If nothing else, ISTE is an invigorating reaffirmation in the power of education and the incredible resilence of teachers.

5. How does this relate to English? At the end of the day, it’s not technology that connects us to the world or each other.  It’s not even the experience itself; it’s how we communicate our experiences, how we express our solutions, our innovations, our passions.  And where can you find that curriculum in abundance? The humanities.  Every tech/science/math teacher I met at ISTE argued that the humanities have never been more needed.  Every Microsoft developer I spoke with (and there are surprising quite a few at ISTE) emphasized how important communication, critical thinking, divergent thinking, and even empathy were core values to their company.  I’m not just learning to code because it’s fun; I’m learning a different way to communicate albeit with a program.  And then, I’m writing about that experience to a very human audience.  Yet, our students have trouble transfering their very applicable English skills to the STEM classroom.  My theory? If we don’t see STEM/STEAM as an interdisciplanary collaboration with the humanities, if we don’t practice and work in tangent with other departments, then how can we expect them to do the same?  My own ruminations on this have motivated me to re-invent my science fiction course.  Even more so, I would love to see every school embrace a creative non-fiction class where students would learn how to respond, react, and even collaborate with a very interdisciplinary reality. And that is really the new reality.

So yea.  Go to ISTE.

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Life is Not a Solo Act. [Nor is teaching.]

My 11th grade English teacher had one motto and one motto only for nearly every inquiry or sought after advice: life is not a solo act.  A high school me understood that as the importance of friends but, while a true sentiment, not quite how I understand that motto now.  In fact, my previous understanding rings a bit false; we all need friends but that doesn’t always guarantee you are not a solo act.  Friends are often our most forgiving audience.  No- I think Mrs. Isenhour’s motto was about something slightly different than friendship, something the adult me recognizes immediately as a cornerstone of many successful relationships: collaboration.

Teachers are the stuff of collaboration.  The vocation almost demands it, whether collaborating with a student to master an objective, working with another teacher to develop interesting curriculum, or simply attending professional development with a team.  Collaboration might be my favorite thing about teaching, especially any collaboration that allows for interdisciplinary design. And if by chance lunch happens at a table with a diverse crowd, collaboration can be organic as it was the day Ms. Mattox introduced Dr. Ward and I to Kara Walker, a silhouette artist that focuses on the American South as a medium. We spent lunch discussing visual arts and the profound effect visuals have in moving others into action or reflection. And later, when meeting in the Madeira art studio to view Walker’s work, I could easily see the Southern Gothic influence in her art and I couldn’t help but recall the Gothic module in the American Literature curriculum.

It’s very tempting to write an entire diatribe about the Gothic tendencies in the Puritans and the arguably unavoidable connection to a Gothic inheritance in antebellum Southern society, exactly as we did that day.  I’ll spare the reader this in service of staying on topic.

Gothic3What happened next is, quite frankly, my favorite collaboration of this year.  Using Walker’s medium, Ms. Mattox, Dr. Ward and I crafted a project for the Gothic module in which I am affectionately calling “A Light in the Night.” We prompted students to remember their Slavery to Civil Rights module and connect the grotesque displays of racism during that era to Walker’s intent in some of her pieces; we then ask them to recall their current study of the Gothic grotesque.  In many ways, these two courses are the shifting notion of a very literal darkness for the Puritans trying to settle a nation in the wild woods and the very metaphorical darkness found in even the most democratic hearts and minds.  Students then channeled Walker, Gothic motifs, and their own “darkness” to create silhouette candles.  The results were sublimely fantastic, scary even: Mallie’s created a candle that reflected the electric chair and the horrors associated with the death penalty.  Katie’s candle reflected the damsel in distress motif and the fantastical dangers surrounding femaleness.  Ally’s candle watched you, quite literally, behind two demonic eyes. For all students, it was clear how art could channel the feeling of a time period, past and current, to move some into action and some in reflection.

Gothic1As for our own reflection, it’s a project that speaks to the testament of collaboration.  Perhaps Ms. Mattox coined it best, “[Collaboration] provides teachers a new opportunity to view their subject matter in a different light and lens, and share ideas for engaging students on multiple levels of learning.”  Essentially we become students too, waiting for that moment when the interdisciplinary design becomes alive in the mind of others.  While my favorite part was designing the project, there was some shared sentiment for Dr. Ward’s favorite moment: “seeing each little success: the right cut, the design that came out “just so,” the happy accident—each one a lively little moment of insight.”  I think that’s an elegant way of saying that collaboration is very much a reminder of how shared experiences are often the most insightful; that while individuality is indeed a solo act, life is not.

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My Rorschach Happy Moment (Not even kidding.)

Many teachers cite student growth as their favorite moments in teaching, moments when an abstract idea clicks or a student begins to connect the dots between disciplines.  These are all noble moments.  Mine is not so noble.

Two years ago, I created a sci-fi course as a senior English elective.  While I admit that a lot of my motivation stemmed from my own love of sci-fi and speculative fiction, I do also recognized the immediate importance of teaching this specific class at an all girls school.  Not only is literature (arguably of almost any culture) dominated by male protagonists, but male dominated worlds.  Men, both in an authorial context and a literal one, are allowed to create, design, and experiment.  Women protagonists must inspire.  Women authors must role-model or journal.  Women are often expected to be caretakers.   And, while sci-fi is not a exception to any of this by far, it encourages the reader (female or not) to engage someone’s creation (Frankenstein), someone’s design (The Matrix), or even someone’s experiment (The Giver).  Science fiction will even allow its writers and worlds to have female badasses, female problem solvers, and female leaders.  For the sci-fi teacher, the classroom conversations shift in ways that just aren’t possible with classic literature.  And in a STEM/STEAM world, science fiction engages any reader in ways that intersect literature with math, science, and engineering.

I’ve somehow started to launch into a diatribe about why science fiction is a necessary study in the modern day high school.  I’ll save this for another post.

IMG_20170406_163827My favorite moment. Two years ago I created a sci-fi course intended to push girls into interdisciplinary thinking and into conversations about ethics, justice, physics, and civilization building.  And while I’ve had many amazing moments, my favorite one (so far) happened today.  When I teach scifi, I begin by teaching both Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces and the lesser known archetypes via Jung. Both are easily rooted in psychology, but many times its hard for the students to grasp at the idea that opposites exist as a means of balance; balance is a basic principle of physics.  (We get very meta quickly here, so I’m sparing the non-literary reader as much as I can.)  This is often times when my dry-erase boards look the most aesthetically pleasing. I do this lesson as a two part introduction to Alan Moore’s Watchmen and for good reason: in creating an alternative history, Moore has to offset the reader’s discomfort of both recognizing and not recognizing that world with the familiar, sometimes relate-able journey of very defunct characters.  Both Rorschach and The Comedian have to feel at once familiar and not; we recognize their plight by unconscious familiarity with the hero’s journey.  Who your hero is becomes the novel’s great crisis; Moore’s deconstruction of the superhero is ultimately commentary on our own need for a superhero.

Hence, when paper time comes around for Watchmen, I’m often met with two kinds of responses: “how am I going to write all my feelings about this in an analysis” or “oh my god I have to write all my feelings about this in an analysis.”  This is so often true that I rarely expect anything different.

So, when a student met with me today, I was completely blown away.  “Can I write about how the archetype of the Joker becomes the truth-sayer and how problematic that is for the reader?  Or even for other characters? Am I remotely close?  And have you read Moore’s The Killing Joke?  My dad gave it to me when he heard we were reading Moore.  Ms. Heishman, are you ok? ”

Yes. Very.  I spent 45 minutes today waxing poetic about Jokers, the hero’s journey, Watchmen’s Comedian, physics, and how justice is a social construct.  With a student.  With another girl (I’m really just a grownup fan girl.)

Let’s all teach science fiction.  I mean that.

 

 

 

 

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Kindness Week!

I have much to post this week, but I thought I’d do a quick share: my favorite week at school was last week, or Kindness Week!  It runs in conjunction with National Kindness Week, and I’m happy to see that tradition grow.  At my school, we keep it simple. Sometimes, this is the best way- after all, kindness in its most simple form is a powerful thing.

Our guidance counselors invited the whole school to write notes- of encouragement, of gratitude, of greeting- to anyone in the school.  Teachers were encouraged to write colleagues, students, and staff; students the same.  The cafeteria dedicated a whole table to notecards of all sorts, makers, crayons, pens, and stickers so that anyone could write their note during the day. The notes were delivered via snail mail, which in our school means the student board or your faculty box.

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Our amazing guidance department posting notes!

 

I cannot tell you how incredible, how moving it is to watch a student squeal in delight (I teach all girls, so squeal is really the right word) when they get a card.  I cannot tell you how much it just makes my week to open up my own notes and find words that make my job so meaningful, even from the most unlikely sources.

And so, while I am behind in posting, know that I spent my time writing others.  If only we all did this year round!

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The New Way to Time Travel: AR and VR Classrooms

When I first started teaching in 2005, my principal was horrified at my request for a classroom wifi hotspot.  Horrified.  I received a document camera instead.  The next year I asked for the new iPad- just one for my classroom.  (It’s hard to believe, but iPads have only been around seven years!)  The horrified look. Again.

I left for graduate school the next year, thinking a graduate degree would help negotiate my bargining power with administration.

Now, having returned to the high school classroom some years later, I’m having the same conversations about technology and the classroom.  It is less about personal devices (we are a bring-your-own-device school); classrooms with laptops are the new norm.  And while there are still worthy conversations about social media, time on task, and access to new technology, I have full administrative support on the need for technology in the classroom.  (I even have my own hotspot!)  Yet there is a new battlefront brewing, and I’m wondering how much this one might re-shape or redefine teaching.  I wonder how much teachers, particularly humanities teachers, are willing to embrace the new virtual reality technologies.

Mobile-Marketing-Coming-to-Virtual-Reality.jpgFor the past four years, I’ve been an aggressive advocator for problem-based learning and game-based learning.  It comes from my own experience as a learner.  I simply retain knowledge best when learning to solve a problem or competing.  Between my many years on team sports and family game nights, my brain is hard wired to want learning to be at the very least fun.  I don’t think today’s generations are much different.  And I don’t deny the value of lecturing or even socratic methods; I just think problem-based learning and game-based learning are better frameworks to structure (preferably) interdisciplinary design.  So when VR (virtual reality) entered mainstream markets this year, I saw no reason why education wouldn’t be the first frontier for this relatively new technology.

Before I launch into my diatribe about how VR could re-shape the classroom, I do need to pay service to a growing concern among educators.  Grant Lichtman author of #EdJourney: A Roadmap to the Future of Education says it best, “Technology enables education; it doesn’t drive education…[technology] is just another one those changes that require a growth mindset.”  Many educators and even administrations focus more on integrating new technologies long before evaluating how that technology encourages learning or even if there is already implemented training for that new technology.  This can scare many would-be tech users away. Simply implementing new technology for the sake of declaring the school has that technology is a slippery slope: I’ve visited many a classroom where the SmartBoard is just a projector screen or the classroom iPad is still in the box.  Just the same, there are classrooms that declare their innovation simply by using technology.  Using is much different than implementation, and successful implementation happens when technology is allowed to be the vehicle to get to an answer or objective beyond simply use.

shutterstock_276949547Nonetheless, the new augmented (AR) and virtual realities (VR) excite me. There are some obvious reasons: AR and VR give access to students that they may not have otherwise- like the ability to see Greek ruins and never leave the room.  Virtual fieldtrips, while not an argument for replacing the real experience, could subsidize the cost of fieldtrips.  The internet has made so many of my students visual learners that I imagine VR and AR as just an extension of their visual mind-mapping, particularly for complex subjects.  There are other reasons to be interested in the AR/VR classroom.  Imagine problem-based learning in an augmented reality.  Team playing through a dangerous viral outbreak. Role playing as a crew member aboard Ahab’s ship.  Participating in an archaelogical dig. Studying the eco-system of the rain forest.  The possibilities are endless.  More than anything, I want my students to build stories, build worlds with a complex understanding of how a story works.  I want them to watch Gatsby become consumed with materialism and I want them to work alongside student coders to create new games, new escape rooms.

Essentially, I want teachers to start envisioning the classroom as its own VR- something they can use to engage students in the 21st century beyond recitation of facts.  I want my students to have safe spaces to practice digital citizenship, a growing necessity in this very connected world.  And, just as important, I want resources and professional development to grow with the new technology, rather than a learn as you go approach that many teachers are forced to do when faced with new technology.  I want that to be a key argument for putting new technology in the hands of educators while partnering with the IT department, who can often be territorial even when it comes to letting teachers teach or write tech focused professional development.  More than anything, I want to challenge the old boundaries with the new reality; I want the classroom to extend beyond four walls for my students. That technology is here, and if we are really going to be innovative, we need to embrace VR as an extention of student ability.

So.  Who else is asking their administration for VR gear?

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Filed under Teaching Methods, Teaching Philosophy, Technology

Harry Potter, Huck Finn, and HellaGoodProjects

Whew!  The school year FLEW by- before I could collect my thoughts, the juniors were now seniors and the seniors were, well, gone.  So was my time…

I have so much to reflect about the year- the OneNote introduction to the junior class, the changing curriculum to come, moving The Adventures of Huck Finn to AP English…and that’s just the beginning.  I have all summer to share the year, starting with some amazing project examples.  I started the year dedicated to open projects, meaning that no project had a list of “things” it had to be.  More like each project had a list of objectives and meanings it needed to express.  It was a bit scary at first- letting the students take the wheel on how and what their final products would be- and there were some failures.  But I’m a proponent of failure in the classroom as well as letting the student set their standard.  Most of them will set it higher than a teacher ever would.

I did this project with two different modules; the first round you can read about in my previous post. The second time around wasn’t much different save for this: it had to be a product. (No emojii comic books, please.)  Same rules- the chosen annotations/project had to be from either Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon or Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. For project completion, each student had to complete an “interview” about their project (click Project Annotation for the questions). This module did not disappoint- many of them developed projects so innovative and creative, I plan to use several as examples next year.  So, with much ado, here is the first of many showcases.

This is a Marauder’s Map of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: 

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The Map Sleeve

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Portaits of Huck and Jim frame the center; framed on each side by important quotes from each character. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The entire sleeve opens up to reveal a map of their journey; the top right and left wings of the title are explication of the quotes found below each one.  On the bottom and to the right of “Map” is prediction for next chapter and how this student feels Huck grew in the chapter.  In her interview, she explained that the night scene was a metaphor for Huck’s moral compass as evident in this chapter.  

Pretty amazing, yes?  I’m excited to see what this could look like when applied to Song of Solomon.  I’m pretty excited in general that Harry Potter found a way into my classroom…stay tuned and I’ll share the Tarot Cards next!

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